My group (engineering) is highly multicultural and diverse. Some of my students come from adversarial ethnic/religious groups, so I made it “set in stone” that politics and religion do not belong in the lab. We respect each other and sometimes discuss cultural differences and habits politely.

I recently received some applications for a new PhD position. One candidate started their C.V. with a huge “in the name of God” and continued throughout their application discussing how God will guide or guided them or God will make sure they get good results and finish their PhD. Overall, I counted the word God in their application twelve times. This left a bad taste to me.

In the particular case, the said candidate was classified much lower that the chosen candidate merit-wise (scores, research experience, etc.).

  • Is it acceptable to disclose and declare vividly religious preferences in academic applications?
  • Is this a sign that this person will also be as vocal in the group, thus creating issues?
  • Should I simply ignore this information, even if the candidate decided for some reason to vocally disclose it? What should I do with it?


  • I am in the EU.
  • There is nothing religious about my university.
  • The candidate in question is from the Middle East.
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment.
    – cag51
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 21:14

16 Answers 16


Regardless of my own faith, referring to god a dozen times in an application is highly unusual and rather unprofessional. Prospective PhD students, however, should have some understanding of the professional customs of the field. (After all, you don't go on at length about any other personal and non-work-related beliefs and preferences in applications, proposals, presentations etc..) If the rest of the application is very good, I might look past this. But it is certainly a glaring minus.

  • 44
    I strongly disagree - this perspective excludes people based on their cultural and economic background. Not everyone has an opportunity to learn "professional" cultural practices before they start their PhD. Commented Jul 23, 2020 at 15:08
  • 65
    @AnonymousPhysicist I think you point to an important consideration, thanks. I'd say professionalism can and should be learned during undergrad studies. Sure, not everybody manages to learn it, but that in itself is not an excuse. However, while referring 12 times to god looks pretty unprofessional to me, it should really be only one factor in the overall evaluation of the application, which should also take the cultural context into account. Commented Jul 23, 2020 at 15:13
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; the rest of this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 21:17

People in some Middle Eastern countries use the name of god so frequently that these words are becoming familiar even in the west:. Inshallah, wallah, ilhamdulillah, mashallah, yallah (i think) and probably a few more. For less religious people these are just phrases they use without thinking twice, but the more religious are quite conscious of their literal meaning when they say them.

So if the candidate is from the Middle East, it may just be a bad translation, or it means that the candidate is quite religious.

This is just anecdotical, but I personally have told several quite religious people from the Middle East that I have no religion and I have not gotten any (visibly) negative reaction yet. So I would not automatically assume that a religious candidate from these countries will have problems tolerating other views. These countries have different degrees of piousness too, and anyway if he/she moves abroad, they are probably aware that they have to adapt to their new environment.

Obviously the letter you received (if it was indeed from the middle east) was not particularly well-adapted to western culture, but then one might first need to become familiar with western culture before one can adapt to it.

P.S. as a native speaker of German, I quite often use Gott sei Dank (thank god) in everyday life. I would not use it in any formal letter because it is a somewhat informal expression. But it probably would not occur to me that using such a phrase might be culturally inappropriate.

  • 16
    Those phrases mean, roughly: "hopefully", "really", "I am relieve/gratified/thankful", "I am resigned to fate / recognize the inescapability of fate", "let's go / come on".
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 11:02
  • 28
    I read the paper "Genre Analysis of Appeal Letter Writing by Iranian Students" which found that Iranian students wrote longer introductions and salutations and used proverbs and kinship terms, as apparently is common in Persian formal writing. I expect Arabic formal writing is at least somewhat similar. It seems to me that this answer appropriately describes the actual problem: they aren't good at writing in English or the specific EU country's language and resorted to translation; they aren't necessarily thinking about religion or God.
    – gormadoc
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 13:57
  • The off-topic conversation about deities has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 9:06

There are several questions here.

First, most people consider their religious beliefs to be a private matter, though that is not true for all cultures. If someone is applying to a school that shares a culture in which god is "worn on the sleeve" then it would be fine, I guess, but in a cross-cultural application it might be unwise for the applicant. Not every place has policies such as yours.

Whether the person will be disruptive or not is unknown and you won't really know unless you have a conversation with them, provided that they are ranked highly enough on proper criteria to merit a close look.

In general, I would consider "disclosing" their religion to be benign and I would even expect to have to make some allowances for some folks so that they can carry out their religious practices. But proselytizing for a particular religion, whatever it is, would likely be disruptive. You might need to have some rules around that, so that people know that they have to keep to the job at hand when working.

As to the question of letting religion declarations influence your hiring decisions, I would adopt practices such as yours. Your religion is your business, not mine. Other, more relevant, things will influence the hiring decision.

  • 11
    The burden of facilitating cross-cultural interactions should lie on the university, not the prospective student. One should not assume someone who wants to learn has already been educated. Commented Jul 23, 2020 at 15:10
  • 3
    @AnonymousPhysicist, I don't think I suggested otherwise.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 23, 2020 at 15:12
  • 17
    Some religious, or currents within religions, hold the opposite view. Specifically, Islam and Judaism developed as state religions, and have specific teachings regarding the conduct of public affairs, upto and including diplomacy and war. So, I would disagree with the claim that "most people consider their religious beliefs to be a private matter".
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 10:54
  • 8
    "Not every" - granted, but a huge fraction if not a majority. It's not about fundamentalism. The idea that religious beliefs are private is absolutely not universal. In fact, IIANM, its current adoption in Europe and the US goes back to the enlightenment period.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 12:38
  • 5
    I don't understand how your latest comment relates to mine.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 13:40

You should ignore this information the candidate volunteered in their application. Instead, address diversity and inclusion at the interview stage for ALL candidates.

There is a cultural (religious) difference between yourself and the candidate. A university should be a diverse, tolerant, and inclusive place. The real test of tolerance is to tolerate views that are widely different from yours.

Diversity and inclusion should be addressed in the interview part of the application process, but you should ask all candidates the same questions, in particular for such a sensitive topic. Those questions should aim to ensure that the candidate can respect the diverse, tolerant, and inclusive place that the university is. Should the answers from one of the candidates reveal that they will not be able to respect this environment, then that will rule them out from being hired. However, you cannot infer this from the frequency of mentioning God in the application.

Everybody has prejudices. Perhaps some people think that if a candidate mentions God twelve times they might refuse to work with gays, but we don't know that. We all need to become aware of our prejudices, try to overcome them, and design systems such that our prejudices do not lead to discrimination of others.

P.S. I believe that in particular a rule "politics do not belong in the lab" is difficult to enforce. If I put a rainbow sticker on my door with the text "I stand with LGBTQ", will I be told to remove this? Is it bad if during the coffee break I discuss how I was at the March for Science or the Scientists for Future during the weekend? How about union activity, which is inherently political but you probably cannot legally keep out of the lab? If you have such a rule, you need to provide some guidelines on their interpretation.

  • 17
    "You should ignore this information". If a candidate says in their cover letter (which is important for me) that X will guide them to complete the PhD, should I ignore the whole phrase? Should I remove the 10+ phrases that refer to that and reread what is left? Or, do you suggest I try to fill in the gaps by myself? Is that fair to others that have written a stunning cover letter that describes their passion for research and their drive, their own achievements?
    – electrique
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 9:21
  • 12
    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. Middle East. I prefer not to point the exact country. I've had 5 candidates from the same country, even same university 1, the candidate was the only one volunteering the religious info.
    – electrique
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 9:36
  • 9
    "Perhaps some people think that if a candidate mentions God twelve times they might refuse to work with gays, but we don't know that". Well, let's be honest, there aren't many religions which could be mentioned 12 times in a cover letter. And a particular one doesn't seem to be too tolerant towards homosexuality or apostasy (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment_for_homosexuality en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discrimination_against_atheists). But you're right, we cannot know even if there's a higher probability of it being the case. It just would be a good idea to check. Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 9:40
  • 10
    @gerrit I disagree. The cover letter is used to point the recruiter to the right direction and convince why you fit the profile they are looking. In the call, I ask for good experience in skill A and B. I expect the cover letter to tell me if you have that experience or not. If not, how do you make up for it. If I have to dig out of a 10-page CV to estimate/guess if you have skill A because you wasted the cover letter on something else, it's certainly not helping.
    – electrique
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 9:42
  • 11
    @EricDuminil Even if anti-gay attitudes are statistically more common in some religions than in others, to check it only for some candidates and not for others would be discrimination based on religion, which would be wrong, illegal, (and even ineffective, considering there are atheists who hate gays). Candidate should be judged based on their own relevant characteristics, not on views that happen to be common in a group they belong to.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 10:12

What do the other applicants say about (for example), how they intend to conduct their research? If one candidate says something like 'I completed this similar project, have done this reading, and my references can attest to my ability to be creative', and the other candidate says 'God will guide me to the solution', then clearly the first candidate is better. This is not because of the overt religious stance, it's because the second candidate did not actually provide any evidence that they can do research.

While I understand your discomfort with the overt religious stance taken by the applicant, the initial assessment of their suitability should be based on the information they have provided that is relevant to their ability to complete the PhD. If you discover that they have actually provided that information (as well as the religious references) and they are a strong candidate, then you interview them like you would for the others.

During the interview (for all candidates) you can mention lab rules. If diversity is part of the selection criteria, you can even have a question that specifically asks for their views of the pros and cons of diverse lab and mention that you have a lab with a range of cultural differences including religion.

  • 5
    What if he says “God will help me, like he helped me before”? Someone can be a good problem solver and attribute his success to god.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 14:54
  • 8
    @gnasher729 if someone answered 'it came to me in a dream', you'd still follow up with additional questions about what they did. Either they can explain their research process or they can't. I wouldn't employ someone who responded 'I wait until God tells me the answer' but that's not because they attribute their success to God, it's because they are not doing anything else while waiting
    – JenB
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 15:01

I think you would be opening yourself up to a discrimination lawsuit if you wrote that as a reason for rejecting a candidate. Naturally in your case you did no such thing, but if you had that would definitely be illegal, and possibly for multiple reasons if your lab is at a publicly funded university.

I do think that it's kind of weird to talk about God in your resume. But I've seen papers from Egyptian universities that start with "In the name of God the most merciful..."

  • 4
    I don't think anyone would be so silly do "write this as a reason for rejecting a candidate".
    – user111388
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 7:27
  • 6
    The opening phrase "In the name of God the most merciful..." is not quite the same as talking about God. It is customary for devout muslims (in some cultures) to start all formal letters and addresses with this phrase, regardless of the content. It's almost like a "Dear Sir" and "Sincerely" in formal letters. It's not quite that - of course it has a religious connotation and is not rheotrically necessary - but the authors would probably not know what you're talking about if you tell them they "talked about God" in the paper.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 10:59
  • 7
    @einpoklum It seems to me that an answer by you would be extremely useful for readers here.
    – user96809
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 12:47
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore.: Thanks for the compliment, but what I had to contribute was more as comments than as an answer to OP. Also, my knowledge of Arab and Islamic culture is sufficient to know that I don't know enough...
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 13:43
  • 1
    @user111388: Maybe no one would be so silly as to write the reason down in the rejection email, but some would, say, openly speculate about using that reason, on the internet no less, prior to potentially using it. OP's account is certainly not a throwaway. Maybe the applicant does browse SE. I agree that getting caught would be unlikely, but not vanishingly so. Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 19:10

The Original Poster has stated that in this case the candidate was from the Middle East, but has not disclosed which country. They ask three questions:

  • Is it acceptable to disclose and declare vividly religious preferences in academic applications?
  • Is this a sign that this person will also be as vocal in the group, thus creating issues?
  • Should I simply ignore this information, even if the candidate decided for some reason to vocally disclose it? What should I do with it?

The answers to these questions depend on the context.

If the applicant has been through the undergraduate system, and perhaps also an MA, at a university in a largely secular country—for example in Europe or Japan—then these so-called 'declarations' would be slightly worrying, as they would seem to show that the applicant has not been able to master any type of academic register in terms of writing style, or to grasp what the important factors for an academic application are. It is not so much that such declarations are not acceptable; they are not appropriate. [That said, if the applicant had sufficient merit otherwise, this should not necessarily preclude them from consideration altogether]

In such circumstances, given that the applicant would seem to have missed these cultural academic norms, there might be an issue with their being proselytising or otherwise being overly vocally dogmatic about their religious beliefs within the group. However, one cannot tell. As other answers have mentioned, this would need to be dealt with at interview.

Apart from noting the points above there is little to be done with this information. The rest of the application still needs to be considered on its merits.

However, if it is the case—as it seems to be here— that the applicant has not studied in such an environment previously, then it may well be the case that such language just indicates a high degree of formality in their native country. They are simply grinding through some of the set phrases and moves that they would have to use in a formal application for a home institution. As noted by @einpoklum, the opening salutation, In the name of God, which clearly troubled the Original Poster, means little more than Dear Sir/Madam in the relevant languages and cultures. These are linguistic problems, not attitudinal ones. Consider Bless you after someone sneezes, or god willing in informal contexts, or the terms adieu or a deo or the provenence of goodbye: 'God be with you'. Similarly, with God's help and alternative phrasings, may mean little more than conventionally signalling humbleness on the part of the speaker. Consider phrases such as should my application be successful and so forth.

In such cases, in answer to the Original Poster's questions:

  • There is probably no intention to declare any vividly religious preference. (And it seems HIGHLY unlikely in OP's case that the candidate actually "declared a preference" for a religion as opposed to translating conventional language which in their own culture mentions the word "god" or similar). Indeed, one can tell virtually nothing about the religious beliefs of the applicant from this language. They may privately be a rabid aetheist.

  • This is not a sign that the applicant will be "as vocal" in the group. Just as it wouldn't be if they said "bless you" after someone sneezed. It's no guarantee against it either. As several answers have intimated, this should be determined at interview, and for all candidates.

  • It shouldn't prejudice against the candidate's application along the lines that OP is suggesting it maybe should do. In this context, this language has nothing to do with religiosity or being deliberately insensitive to others' beliefs or points of view. It may indicate that the candidate will need to learn a new formal register more suitable for a professional researcher in the international academic community. But that's what a PhD's for.

If the OP's professed tolerant culture, or any of ours, is more than just lipservice, then it behoves us to consider and try to understand the situation that the people we are interacting are coming from. With tolerance, as my Aunty Ernie used to say: self-praise is no recommendation!


You made a hiring decision based on the appropriate criteria (stated as scores, research experience).

While the extra information was there - that did not influence your decision so you don't have any concerns. Whether the candidate will try to makes "waves" citing religious persecution is a different question.

  • 6
    But the question is general in nature: even though it wasn't a practical problem this time, what if it were?
    – Zeus
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 2:33
  • 5
    What you said is true in OP's specific case, but I think the question exceeds that scope.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 10:55
  • There is a lack of professionalism in the candidate.
    – kosmos
    Commented Jul 26, 2020 at 8:32

Your program is for engineering. Your prospective student wasn't applying to a Doctor of Ministry program, or to a PhD program at a divinity school. So establishing their bona fides in their religious practice wasn't a necessary part of their application.

And, in my experience as both an engineer and a minister, the Holy One doesn't manipulate reality to make people successful, but instead gives people strength and courage. My point is, your candidate's declarations are even a little suspect in a div school context.

You passed on this candidate for reasons of competence and experience, just like you passed on several other candidates. You have done your recruiting well.

If the candidate comes back and asks for advice on how to improve themselves for future applications, you might advise them to upgrade skills, and spend more space on their specific qualifications for YOUR program.

An edit to my answer.

Your recruiting issue would be different if the candidate were clearly the best choice for your lab. But you can still handle this in a way that's respectful of the candidate and the rest of your team (not to mention yourself). Here's my suggestion about this:

Tell the candidate you're delighted they have spiritual resources to sustain them through the challenges of a PhD program. "Since you brought it up in your CV..." is a good way to open the conversation. Confronting the unknown in the natural world is the stuff of earning science or engineering PhDs, and a student needs strength and courage to keep at it.

Tell them their colleagues-to-be have a diverse array of their own resources for doing that. Make it clear that your group's behavioral norm is to respect each other's ways of working, including their inner / spiritual / whatever resources. And, maybe emphasize that your group members learn a lot from each other.

If the conversation goes further, say something like this. "If you try to convert / proselytize / evangelize people in my group, you are likely to annoy them. That will do your religious cause far more harm than good. And it violates our behavioral norms."

That sets expectations and lets the candidate decide whether your lab is a good match for them.

Footnote: many people embrace religion as a way of embracing the mysteries of life. Others embrace it as a path to certainty. And, PhD-level natural science work is like the former, not the latter. Hence my suggestion to mention confronting the unknown.

  • 1
    While in this case they rejected for other reasons the actual question OP has (not well stated in the question, only clear in comments) is whether they could/should reject them for mentioning God so much if they were otherwise a good choice.
    – gormadoc
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 13:13
  • Good point. @gormadoc. I added some material to my answer.
    – O. Jones
    Commented Jul 26, 2020 at 17:19

First, decide whether you are hiring a researcher or a missionary.

Then decide whether somebody who mentions God in every other sentence of a job application is the right person for the job.

I think it is perfectly reasonable to assume that if someone does this in a job application, they will also do it if they are hired. It's your decision whether you think that is acceptable or not in your work group.

If you want a researcher, hire the best researcher who applied. If you want a missionary, hire the best missionary.

That is not discrimination against religion per se. The same would be true is somebody mentioned their favourite sport in every other sentence, for example (and working in industry, I can think of one instance where somebody was fired for doing exactly that, or more precisely because of the amount of disruption he caused in the team by doing it.)

I also work in a group where everyone knows there are group members with various degrees of commitment to Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and probably a few more religions besides. Some of them have organized their own religious activities in unused conference rooms during lunch breaks, etc and nobody cares about that. On the other hand, if anybody started trying to preach to or convert anyone else in the normal working environment, they wouldn't last long.


There are a lot of people that have cultural/religion roots that mandates them to be very fervorous in praising God the most that they can. As other answers already stated, this is common in Middle East, but I already saw some Christian people in the West with the same trait (in my own family to be sincere).

For those people, not praising God wherever they can is bad, ranging from uncomfortable, to simply wrong, to unethical or to sinful, regardless of what the receiver of the message feels about that. Their religious belief mandates that they should praise God wherever possible.

Since you should value inclusiveness, you should not judge people that have such religious views either positively nor negatively. You might personally consider this as fanatism, lunacy, insanity or whatever, but you shouldn't allow your opinion about the candidate's religious belief contaminate your judgement.

To be frank, I also consider that those people are fanatics, and I have some of them in my own family. Also, most of them even are very aware that everyone else considers them as fanatics and they're very proud of this because this makes them believe that they are being successfully in pleasing God if everyone else is seeing them this way. They surely can be very annoying and boring with their religious views and behaviors and they are perfectly aware of that, but they strongly believe that it is an important mandatory part of the mission of their lives acting in such way. So, they are simply behaving in the way that they believe that they should behave regardless of what other people thinks about that.

As any religious belief, their way of life should be respected and tolerated, not suppressed or discriminated. Even if you find that they can behave in a somewhat annoying way to you and to everyone else.

So I made it “set in stone” that politics and religion do not belong in the lab.

Most people would be ok with that. But for those “overly-fervorous”, this sound as religious persecution, suppression or censorship precisely because their religious belief says that they should praise God and talk about their religion as much as possible to whoever possible wherever possible even if the audience does not wants to hear them. In this case, as long as they tolerate other people and doesn't creates serious troubles about religious issues with others, everyone for the sake of inclusiveness should allow them be what they are - fervorous religious.

Inclusivity and respect is not achieved by silencing everyone, even if it is about an issue that have nothing to do with the work or the environment that you're working on. It is achieved by having everyone be ok with everyone else speaking about things that no one else believes (as long as it is not dishonest, unethical, criminal, illegal or something like that).

So, change the rule to the similar, but quite different and somewhat weaker as:

“We prefer to not talk in the lab about things that does not belong to the lab as long as possible, like, for example, sports, politics, sexuality and religion.”

You should just ensure that no one creates trouble about that, that everyone knows the rules and that everybody respects everyone else. Just be sure that the rules don't have the unintended effect to lead to some form of censorship, suppression of free speech or something like that. This is something that have a very tenuous line and a lot of shady areas, but as long as everyone gets and understand the rules, it shouldn't create serious issues having someone saying the word "God" too much because they believe that its their obligation to do so.

To directly answer your questions:

Is it acceptable to disclose and declare vividly religious preferences in academic applications?

Yes. This is not the ideal, surely, but should not be disallowed. Disallowing that is a form religious persecution and uninclusiveness.

Is this a sign that this person will also be as vocal in the group, thus creating issues?

Probably. But you can't act against someone due to some issue that they did not created yet even if you are pretty sure that they eventually will.

Should I simply ignore this information, even if the candidate decided for some reason to vocally disclose it? What should I do with it?

Ignore it and evaluate their C.V. as if that information was not there and then evaluate/score it as you would do with any other C.V.

  • 1
    A lab that has a rule "not to talk about anything not lab-related" may scare applicants away. It would for sure scare me away. It seems too controlling.
    – wimi
    Commented Aug 11, 2020 at 11:14

I don't know Arabic but, I know that this might be a case lost in translation, I know some words that could be translated as "I hope", "if all goes well", "if I may say so", "fortunately" all relating to God. If they have no prior experience in international settings, it is possible that they are just thinking they are being "formal" as this is - what I am guessing - they would write to a prof in their country.

On the other hand, I once had a great professor, a Cambridge alumni, super smart American guy who gave lectures on artificial intelligence to his church and had his church on his website etc.

I don't think it is professional though, it would be useful to maybe have a Skype interview and talk about how the team respects each other's identities etc. - an indirect warning which I hope will serve as a reminder that they will have more than one religion, perhaps no religion, communists, liberals, yadayada among group members


We are not living in a century when religion played a superior role in every aspect of life including education. You are in an engineering school and a PhD application must talk only about the relevant aspects of engineering. So, definitely this is a minus for the application as the individuals wasting valuable space and your time by using phrases which do not help his cause.

Also, this being a more globalized world, imagine this being read by an atheist. The prospective student is not considerate or has not thought about such scenarios.

Ideally, though this kind of application has a clear minus the candidate must be rejected only if his engineering qualifications are poor. If selected, it is obvious that the candidate has to give up mentioning 'God' in technical manuscripts. If he is good in his skills, why not interview him and check if he is flexible and open to adapt to the professional workplace.


Jan's answer is correct and very good. There are cultures in the world where it is simply expected that God will be acknowledged frequently. It doesn't even necessarily denote particular piety.

To put the matter positively, if you were to exclude such applicants as a matter of course (which you have not done), it would limit the range of applicants you were considering, which would not help you to find the best engineers.

To put the matter negatively, if you were to exclude such applicants as a matter of course, then you would be excluding a fairly specific segment of the globe. I don't believe that that is morally the same as religious or nationality-based discrimination, since you have independent reasons for your concern. But it ought to give any of us pause when our actions (taken for entirely correct reasons) amount to the same action in practice as, e.g., what some right-wing xenophobe would endorse (fill-in-the-blank for your own country).

I reviewed a C.V. for a friend once where the first accomplishment listed was, “Participation in the glorious jihad.” I advised my friend that that probably wasn't the best opening for the job he was applying for. But that's a cultural difference, which doesn't necessarily speak to the candidate's qualification for the particular job.


This type of this really just comes down to cultural differences. In some countries (particularly in the Middle-East) it is considered to be important to demonstrate one's religious piety, and so it is common to invoke appeals to God in the course of one's writing or work. I have received a similar application from a Middle-Eastern student, not replete with religious invocations, but with a few of them.

Obviously we are all aware that in secular Western universities the culture generally favours leaving one's religious preferences out of an application. Most (if not all) Western jurisdictions impose a legal obligation to avoid religious discrimination in assessing entry to educational programs, so most institutions prefer for students not to give us this information to begin with. In any case, in view of the fact that religious discrimination is to be avoided, I would recommend that one should simply ignore the appeals to God in assessing the application, treating it as neither a positive or a negative. Likewise, non-discrimination on religious grounds would also imply that the candidate should not be assessed negatively on the basis of concern that they might proselytise their religion whilst at the university or that this "might create issues". (Firstly because such an inference is premature, and secondly because even if they were to do this, it is probably legally-protected speech in most jurisdictions; to the extent that legally protected speech "creates issues" in a group, that should not be held against that person.)

Since this kind of religious appeal is out-of-place in an application to a Western university (for the aforementioned reasons), it would be reasonable let the applicant know that your university does not take account of religious preferences in assessing applications, and that it is not necessary for the candidate to invoke religious appeals in their application (but by the same token, that will not be held against them).

So, in terms of your specific questions, I would say that if a person declares vividly religious preferences in an academic application, the assessor should not treat it as a positive or a negative. Likewise, they should not infer that the person will necessarily proselytise their religion while at the school, and even if they do, any speculated instance of legally-protected speech ought not be held against them. I disagree with other answers here that suggest that this should be held against the applicant as somehow being "insulting" or "inconsiderate" to a reader who does not share the religious views of the applicant. I'm a staunch atheist and I would not find it even slightly inconsiderate for an applicant to do this (and even if I did, well, that's just tough-luck for me).

  • I'm not particularly staunch either way, but I would find it inconsiderate: either the applicant is just mechanically spamming a list of email addresses (so literally inconsiderate), or else they have consciously sent it to the OP without any sign that they understand the culture of the institution they are applying to. That's important as the the OP likely also has a legal obligation to protect their existing group from harassment, and unconsidered religious comments can spiral into something fast. The OP can't infer that the person will necessarily proselytise, but also can't not.
    – Lou Knee
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 13:44
  • You certainly don't have any obligation to protect your existing group from an imagined harassment you speculate solely from someone else's expression of religious piousness. That kind of speculative leap completely demonises the applicant and would be indicative of an a priori hostile attitude on the part of the recipient of the application. The idea that a religious person should be presumed guilty of pre-crimes merely by expressing their piousness and devotion to God is quite astonishingly to me.
    – Ben
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 13:58
  • It's not a directly equivalent example, but the Trinitarian Church putting a verse from the Bible on the side of buses some years back was seriously considered as to whether it was outright hate speech. If someone put it on their office door, even as an "expression of piousness" I would find it insulting, just as I did on the side of a bus at Heathrow, and it would constitute harassment - demeaning others on the basis of religious belief. 1/2
    – Lou Knee
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 22:16
  • What I said in my comment: the applicant is presumed to be consciously applying to come and study within the UK (for me), possibly elsewhere in the EU (OP). When they arrive they will be expected to stay within the local culture immediately; they will have no grace period within which to learn (one incident is sufficient under UK legislation). No, indeed the OP can't infer that the person will necessarily proselytise, but OP are also responsible for preventing harassment of existing staff and students. 2/3
    – Lou Knee
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 22:37
  • ... That in turn means that the OP must be confident that the applicant understands and will obey local norms from the get-go. The applicant deliberately submitting a document far outside them - 12 mentions, not just one or two - is something that I think the OP can reasonably treat as a warning flag. A warning flag is not an automatic rejection. (It might make for a difficult conversation within the phone interview, though.) Yes, there is also the implication here that the OP has no safe option, that whatever they do can be presented as wrong. (3/3)
    – Lou Knee
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 22:53

One of the criteria I use in hiring is whether they are a harmonious fit for the existing team.

One of my concerns with this application is that the individual may be too dogmatic and not tolerant of others. If he passed the first screening, this would be something I would ask him about in the interview, and in follow up questions to his references (by phone). Possible questions:

  • We have a Zen Buddhist, a Hindu, two Muslims, a Jew, three atheists, two agnostics, and a Baháʼí on our staff already. Give me examples of how you, a strong {insert his religion} have gotten along with people from a widely diverse religious background. (Are they tolerant of people who have different faiths.)

  • Also we have homosexuals, transvestites, and transgender individuals on our staff. What is your stance toward this? (This question looks for tolerance. Are they going to make a big hairy thing of themselves if they see a gay couple snogging in the mail room?)

  • Is the bible to be taken literally? All of it? Do you follow all the rules in Deuteronomy and Leviticus? (Note: replace bible with whatever holy book they use; replace references to D & L with appropriate references to outmoded rules. The key function here is to understand if they cling to unworkable rules, or are inconsistent in their beliefs.)

  • If I told you that you were not to discuss religion or God here at work, could you abide that decision?

  • Give me examples of cases where you had your mind firmly set on something, and an argument or discussion changed your mind. If he answers with his own conversion experience, ask him for another example, not related to his religion.

But really, anyone who wears his religion on his sleeve like this should be avoided. To much potential for conflict. Find a reason to dump him in the reject pile. But be sure you have better qualified people than him in the reject pile. Do not trash the rest of the reject pile in his case in the event that he decides later to file a discrimination suit.

Edit: In all my time on a bunch of stack exchange sites, I've never collected such a set of downvotes. I find it quite amusing.

I suggest that the original poster try this same question on Workplace and see what the reactions are. Maybe I'm a stick in the mud.

I'll agree that the phrasing of my questions need work: The key element here is to get the candidate to show his (in)tolerance for others during the interview process. If he is full of faith,but also shows tolerance, then by all means, hire him. My experience with people like this is that the louder they proclaim their faith, the less tolerant they are of others' beliefs.

I am minded of that quote, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, "Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words."

  • 15
    Such questions are just asking for trouble/discrimination lawsuits.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 7:22
  • 4
    You would really ask those questions in a phd interview?! In which jurisdiction are you?
    – user111388
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 7:26
  • 6
    Question 3 contradicts Question 4, and is just asking for the heated discussion that you are supposedly trying to avoid (and for discrimination claims). I strongly recommend against asking Question 3 in a PhD interview.
    – wimi
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 7:36
  • 2
    "Do you follow all the rules in Deuteronomy and Leviticus?" You seem to assume that the God mentioned by the OP is a Christian or Jewish god. The OP does not indicate this.
    – JRN
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 8:39
  • 8
    A more subtle way to check would be to be sure that women are present during the interview, and see if the applicant answers differently depending on who's asking the questions. I've seen too many people disregard good advice simply because it came from women. Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 9:48

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